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Building stronger foundations through effective leadership

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Whoever said that leaders are born and not made never met Sarah Ennis. Strong, effective leadership skills are the foundation to any successful, purpose-driven team, and Ennis believes that any organization can strengthen its leadership abilities and work environment culture.

Ennis, a former educator and founder/president of the workplace consulting firm SparkPoint, Inc., is bringing her expertise on leadership skills to the upcoming 2021 Iowa Adult Education and Literacy Summer Virtual Conference on July 20-22. Her keynote address, titled “The 3 R’s Emerging from COVID – Reset, Reframe, Renew!”, will showcase how educational leaders can rethink how to do business in this new age of working post-shutdown. Ennis will also be featured in two other sessions focused on emotional intelligence and leading through change.

For the past 20 years, Ennis has worked with teams and organizations to build healthy workplaces, increase productivity and drive success. As a precursor to the conference, she has shared some of her basic tenets on good leadership and how it is a key component for Iowa’s educational institutions.

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, and we are now just slowly re-emerging back into the workplace, including at schools and community colleges. Your keynote address focuses solely on how leaders and their teams can use this experience as a chance to rebuild. Why is this an important opportunity for workplaces to regroup and what are some key things to remember? 
I think we’re in a fascinating time. With COVID, we knew as it was happening that we were living through history. The entire world is going through something together at once, and it gives perspective because there is no doubt we went through something significant. We’re incredibly resilient. An article I read stated that six out of 10 Americans feel like they are thriving right now while a few years ago, it was only four out of 10. How can that be? It’s because the fear or dread can be more debilitating than the actual event. For example, with COVID, we’re much more comfortable now than we were in the first weeks of lockdown. We can handle it.

When we get creative in ways that we didn’t know we could, it’s empowering. I see this time as a unique and powerful opportunity to shift away from unnecessary stuff, which is a good thing, especially for our organizations. We can’t go back to our old normal. We can choose what we want to keep from before and what we can fold in that’s newer and improved. Chances are the ways you were doing things before needed some improvement anyway, and now is the time to implement change. If we’re going to rebuild, let’s rebuild intentionally.

What is your philosophy on being a leader? What are some good traits of being an effective leader?
I think more than anything a leader needs to know that it’s not about them. The mission, the people they serve and the good of the order is the job. Leaders should strive to say yes as often as they can with the greater good in mind.

There are three components to an effective leader: 1. Making people feel safe, 2. Being empathetic, 3. Having a learning and growth mindset. Leaders who create an environment that is safe are accountable to themselves and their organization, and they work with integrity. Making people feel safe isn’t making people feel happy all of the time. Having empathy is key. Leaders feel like they need to have the answers, but a lot of times, the answers are in the people right in front of us. We need to tap into their knowledge and resources and see their points of view.

An empathetic leader has humility, is resilient and is able to say they’re wrong. They can apologize for the gap between their intention and what their actual impact was in that situation. Don’t get stuck on how you’ve always done things. We can always learn to strive and improve as a leader and with our organizational processes. Effective leaders do those things and continue to grow, but it takes a lot of professional courage to do it.

Change in the workplace can sometimes be daunting and even scary for both leaders and educators. What are some basic ways that schools and colleges can manage change?
This is a big question. When it comes to work, we don’t like change that we can’t influence or change that is conceptualized or implemented poorly. But, educators are in the business of change. We help people learn new things, find new resources. If we’re not fresh and engaged, how can our learners be? We’re managing other people’s change all of the time, so what can we do to be better change agents? Denying change exists won’t work. Stop pretending you’ve made big changes when only small ones have happened or believing you’re receiving input when you’re only really looking for validation. We’ve all lived through those things at work and those types of changes. They make us nervous.

Work on authorship versus ownership. People are often told to take ownership of something, but they usually had no say in authorship at all in defining the program, crafting the solution or figuring out how to implement things. We have to engage people to share their ideas and the things they are nervous about. When we prioritize and put our minds together, we can make something happen that we didn’t know was possible. I believe that we should communicate early and often, don’t let fear get in the way of ideas and prioritize what to work on and do it together.

The impact of adult education and literacy programs can be significant. It can change a person’s life, strengthen the workforce and help Iowa grow. How does having strong leadership, organization culture and processes play into this goal? What things should schools and colleges remember as organizations in order to recognize how purposeful their work is?
We can and do change lives. How can we not do everything we can to hit that mark, to actually move that needle? We know organizations are more effective when there is good communication, alignment in our purpose values and activities and support and encouragement for people to be their best. We’re not just teaching concepts and skills, we’re modeling what a healthy, highly functioning organization can be, and that’s just as important as the lesson plans. Schools and colleges have a real opportunity to do this in a more meaningful way compared to what was done in the past. It takes all of us to contribute to that goal. For your organization, your team, the mission and purpose you serve, you need to take care of the air you breathe, the space you live in and the environment you give so much of your lifeforce to because that’s a part of what we give to our students, clients and communities. As educators, if we’re not focusing on that, we’re missing out on half of the opportunity for learning.

The three-day 2021 Iowa Adult Education and Literacy Summer Virtual Conference is an excellent opportunity for educators and administrators to learn innovative practices in adult education from over 40 sessions and network with other attendees. Conference registration is open through July 21.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on September 25, 2021 at 7:43pm.